The number of face-to-face meetings between Australian prime ministers and Chinese leaders and senior officials*, December 1972-December 2022:
* The vast majority of the Chinese leaders and senior officials captured in the above dataset are Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials at the level of Politburo or above or Chinese government officials at the level of Minister or above. In a small number of cases, the data includes meetings between prime ministers and senior Chinese representatives who did not hold CCP or Chinese government positions at those ranks (e.g., the meeting between Prime Minister Bob Hawke and at that time former Vice Premier Gu Mu in 1987). Although the inclusion of these meetings can certainly be debated given that they may not carry the same import as a true leader-level meeting, I err on the side of adding them given the prime ministerial participation.
The database on which the above graph is based is still very much a work in progress and doubtless misses some face-to-face meetings between Australian prime ministers and Chinese leaders and senior officials. This is especially likely to be true of the first decade or so of the diplomatic relationship. The absence of any in-person meetings in 2000 also appears odd in the context of at minimum one meeting per year from 1992 onwards (at least until 2020). Any corrections or additions that readers might be able to offer would be gratefully received. I’ll continue updating and correcting this database and graph as I capture more detail.
Noting these caveats, here are a few preliminary observations:
- The years November 2019 to November 2022 constitute the most sustained period since the late 1980s/early 199os without in-person engagement between the Prime Minister and Chinese leaders and senior officials. In particular, it was the longest single absence of direct contact at that level since the more than three-year gap between Premier Li Peng’s Australia visit in November 1988 and Vice Premier Zhu Rongji’s visit in February 1992. This historical contrast is especially striking considering that the data suggests that prime ministers met in person with Chinese leaders and senior officials on average nearly five times each year in the ten-year period 2006-15.
- Even in the 1970s and early 1980s—when face-to-face meetings between Australian prime ministers and Chinese leaders and senior officials were much less frequent—the longest period without such engagement was April 1973 to June 1976. Leaving aside the post-Tiananmen Square Massacre collapse in leader-level meetings, this means that one would need to go back to the very earliest years of the Australia-China diplomatic relationship to find a longer gap in face-to-face meetings between Australian prime ministers and Chinese leaders and senior officials. This also means that there have only been two gaps in face-to-face meetings at that level longer than the recent curtailment: April 1973 to June 1976 and November 1988 to February 1992.